Mitt Romney says that he wants more trade with Latin America. In fact, that's point two in his five-point plan for the economy, as he reminded us in the third debate. How? By negotiating new trade agreements in the region.
With which countries, exactly? He doesn't say, and frankly it's difficult to name a likely candidate. Thanks to the efforts of President Obama and his three predecessors of both parties, we already have trade agreements with every country of size in the region that is interested in liberalized trade with the United States: Mexico, Central America, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Chile and the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean islands, so important to Florida, benefit from a special trade status.
The larger countries that are left -- Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador -- quite simply have no interest in trade agreements with the United States. And others such as Paraguay and Uruguay who just might, are part of the Mercosur trading bloc and constrained from separate deals with the United States.
Inside U.S. Trade, a respected trade specialty publication, recently called around to experts trying to identify any country in the region that might be ripe for a Romney FTA (I was one of them). Not a single expert from the left or the right could name one.
In fact, despite Romney's emphatic rhetoric about trade with Latin America, it's not clear that he understands our commercial relations in the region at all. At the third debate, he said that Latin America's economy was the same size as China's. It's not: He was off by $2 trillion. Brazil -- the largest country in the region and its commercial powerhouse -- is not mentioned even once on the Romney campaign page for Latin America. (Iran, not in Latin America, is mentioned twice). Mexico, our largest trading partner in the region, gets six mentions -- five of them relating to drugs and violence and only one, obliquely, to trade.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that Governor Romney's talking points about Latin American trade are just that -- talking points. Perhaps because he has so little else to offer Latino voters (other than a softening stance on self-deportation), he has fallen back on trade as a way to sound serious about the region.
President Obama has a far better record and forward agenda on trade with Latin America. He inherited agreements in the region, with Panama and Colombia, that George W. Bush had been unable to persuade the Congress to take up. Despite substantial opposition in his own party due to Colombia's historical labor and human rights record, President Obama understood the dramatic gains that Colombia had made in these areas, and the need to support this strong democracy and ally. He improved the Colombia and Panama agreements through renegotiation and pushed both aggressively through Congress to successful passage in 2011, along with the South Korea FTA.
President Obama has focused on increasing our trade opportunities in Latin America. He has traveled there four times in four years, with trade at the center of his agenda on each trip. In Santiago, Chile last year, he pointed out that we export three times more to Latin America than to China and that "exports to the region .... will soon support more than 2 million U.S. jobs." In Colombia earlier this year, he was proud to be able to say, "Trade between the United States and ... South America, Central America and the Caribbean has expanded 46 percent since I came into office."
Looking ahead to the next trade opportunities, the Obama administration joined the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks -- an expanded trade zone linking together many of the most dynamic Pacific trading powers. If successful, the TPP will provide substantial new trading opportunities not just across the Pacific, but also with Mexico, Canada, Peru and Chile -- all TPP members or about to join.
Facing the Atlantic, President Obama has initiated quiet talks by a high-level working group with the world's largest single economy -- the European Union. If those talks lead to full free trade discussions, we might look ahead to the day when commerce with our most important trading partners in Europe will flow more freely, creating even more opportunities for American businesses and workers in markets abroad.
Floridians know what a U.S.-European Union FTA could mean for the ports of Tampa and Miami. The TPP, thanks to the expanded Panama Canal locks, will permit Florida businesses easier access to markets in Asia, and also along the west coast of North and South America.
President Obama set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014, and with strong government encouragement we have been on track to meeting that goal. He has used trade agreements and negotiations to help create those opportunities. But he also understands that trade may help us collectively though not necessarily individually. He renegotiated the Korea, Panama and Colombia agreements to make them better deals for American workers and businesses. And he refused to introduce the three agreements until Republicans in Congress agreed to extend Trade Adjustment Assistance -- a decades-old program designed to help support and retrain workers hurt by trade agreements. In 2011, Republicans pushed by the Tea Party reversed their decades-long support for TAA and relented only when President Obama forced their hand.
Mitt Romney -- well, Mitt Romney called TAA "ineffective" and "ill-considered," and would have joined the forces blocking the deal that brought bipartisan support to the Colombia, Panama and Korea agreements.
So when Floridians consider which candidate will be better for Florida businesses and workers that look south for their commercial opportunities, or that will benefit from increased and balanced trade across the Pacific and with Europe, their choice should be President Obama. Not the candidate whose Latin America trade platform consists of an FTA with a player to be named later.
Nelson W. Cunningham was a special advisor in the Clinton White House on Latin America and trade issues. He served on the Obama Transition team as lead for the export trade agencies, and is chair of the advisory committee at the Export-Import Bank of the United States. He grew up in Latin America the son of an American businessman. He is managing partner at McLarty Associates, working with businesses on commercial and trade issues in Latin America and beyond.